Idlib is the last remaining province in Syria controlled by the jihadist groups. Also, there is a Turkish presence there, through both the Turkish military observation points and the Turkish soldiers who work alongside the jihadists groups and back them. The Idlib situation has reached a very critical juncture, the culmination of the contradictory attitudes towards the war expressed by external actors as well the contradictory views of the internal actors, especially between those who support the Syrian government and those who oppose it and seek support from Turkey.
Perhaps, Syria’s official stance is the clearest in this milieu of contradictions and uncertainties, with the Syrian government upholding its right to control all of its territory unconditionally, taking into account the recent military operation launched by the Syrian army, and the firm stance of Russia with respect to the right of the Syrian government to clear the region of terrorists. By contrast, Turkey, backed by the US, is demanding the opportunity to create a 30 km-wide safe zone along its border in Syria.
In light of all of this, the military situation is likely to escalate, where there might be a sort of a political agreement pushed by Moscow demanding that the parties observe Sochi agreement, which Ankara itself has not respected. In this regard, an open military war is less likely to happen, as the situation is not only related to the deadlock in the Syria-Turkey relations, but also to other parties like Iran and Russia who have interrelated interests with Turkey. And the same can be said of NATO, which is likely to voice support for Erdogan’s aspirations in words alone, without involving in a direct confrontation with Russia.
What primarily worries the European Union is the refugee issue, which Erdogan has been exploiting quite effectively. Also, there is the issue of European jihadists; many of them are fighting in Idlib and they outnumber the number of those who fought with ISIS east of the Euphrates. Consequently, the European Union is looking into how to get rid of them. That is why, perhaps, continuing with the war while controlling the refugee issue is suitable for the European Union, taking into account the anticipated insistence of Erdogan on using this card as a means of pressure on all sides and as a justification for establishing a relatively wide safe zone; an idea that Moscow opposes.
Moscow has many cards which can be used to exercise pressure on Erdogan, including what Russia is currently doing in providing air support to the Syrian armed forces in targeting terrorists and the Turks who back them, without declaring direct involvement in the struggle against the Turks. This support sometimes gains momentum and sometimes it falters as per the dynamics of the political situation.
In general, we believe that the European role (France and Germany) in the Syrian war has always been marginal and ineffective, and we cannot imagine any future role they could play that would contribute to the efforts to resolve the conflict, given that they do not have any pressure cards on either side. Hence comes Merkel’s statement agreeing to the establishment of a “safe zone” as a solution to stop the influx of refugees. Indeed, this is a card in the hands of Erdogan, who has been attempting to collect as many cards as he can ahead of his March 5 meeting with Russian President Putin.
Another important point with respect to what is currently taking place is the potential likelihood of the military operations being expanded east of the Euphrates, with an understanding being reached with the Kurds in the event that the Syrian government succeeds in reclaiming control of Idlib. This scenario raises fear among the Turks, and the Americans behind them, especially now that the Syrian government is constantly demonstrating its determination to reclaim control of the entire country.